The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is doing some digging to figure out who exactly owns fossils found buried in Montana.
The long-standing dispute is between landowners and mineral estates in Garfield County, who are making competing claims for the rights to the valuable finds. On Monday, the federal appellate court bounced the case back to the Montana Supreme Court for a determination.
The case began in mid-2006 when preserved fossils of dueling dinosaurs were discovered on the ranch of Mary Ann and Lige Murray, a complete T-Rex skeleton and a large Triceratops skull and foot.
After the discovery, the Murrays sold the T-Rex skeleton to a Dutch museum for millions of dollars.
The Murrays owned the surface land on their ranch, but most of the mineral rights belonged to out-of-state companies.
However, when mineral estate contracts were signed, neither party made a contingency for fossils found on the property.
The Murrays told the other mineral titleholders of the discovery in 2008, and in 2013, those companies expressed an interest in ownership based on their mineral rights.
This led to back-and forth-legal battles over who owns fossils, and what fossils are even classified as under Montana law.
In 2016, a Montana district court rules that the Murrays, under their position as landowner, were the sole owners of the dinosaur fossils.
However, the mineral titleholders appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which overruled the district court’s decision in a 2-to-1 ruling.
The judges say it’s because fossils are minerals because of their elemental compositions.
Through a series of petitions, the court of appeals has sent the issue to the Montana Supreme Court, which had yet to weigh in on the matter.
This year, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed a bill that declares that fossils are not minerals, and that they belong to the landowners.
However, because this law was signed after these court proceedings, it’s unclear whether the law applies retroactively to the Murrays’ case.
Neither party has responded to the appeals court’s request at this time.
Reporting by Cat Hill for MTN News